Kathryn Stewart sees the impact of high drug prices first hand.
Low-income patients frequently get released from her Chicago
hospital with a supply of prescription medication that will last
only two or three days. And they can't afford to buy more.
So when Americans head to Canada, either in person or via the
Internet, to buy lower-cost drugs illegally, she applauds. Claims by
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that such drugs are unsafe
"has a hollow ring with the American public," says Dr. Stewart,
medical director of care management at Mt. Sinai Hospital. It "makes
the FDA look like it is just a protectionist arm for the US drug
Stewart is not alone. As the price of prescription medication
soars and as the FDA begins to toughen its stance against drug
importers, support for drug imports is building in the halls of
Congress, in statehouses, even in city halls. At stake is a larger
and more ticklish issue for the pharmaceutical industry. Even as
they plow profits back into research and warn of the dangers of
imports, drugmakers risk a growing backlash from consumers and
politicians that could lead to more government control of their
industry. The battle over imports is merely the latest manifestation
of pent-up frustration.
"This is a very ugly issue for the pharmaceutical industry," says
Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. "As importation of
drugs grow - and it looks set to grow a lot more - drug companies
run a big risk of making more enemies as they fight to prevent
importation. This would fuel the growing backlash against the
In a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive poll released
a week ago, 77 percent of Americans surveyed said they think it is
"unreasonable" for pharmaceutical companies to stop Canadian
pharmacies from selling drugs over the Internet to Americans.
Already, battle lines are forming. In July, a bipartisan majority
in the House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow
Americans to buy prescription drugs from 25 industrialized
countries, including Canada. The legislation has stalled in the
Senate, where 53 senators, more than enough to defeat the measure,
have indicated they oppose it. Supporters are trying to include a
drug-importation provision in the broad Medicare reform bill being
shaped by House and Senate conferees this week.
The FDA and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of
America (PhRMA), a powerful lobbying group representing
pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, remain adamantly opposed
to legalizing imports. In a statement, PhRMA says the House
legislation "would jeopardize the safety of our nation's medicine
supply and import foreign governments' price controls." Drug
manufacturers also contend that price controls in the United States
would smother incentives to invest in research to develop new drugs.
Nevertheless, states such as Illinois, Iowa, Michigan,
Massachusetts, and Minnesota are looking into buying cheaper foreign
drugs. Nearly all of the Democratic presidential candidates,
including Howard Dean, a medical doctor, have expressed support for
legalizing prescription drug imports. So has the AARP, the lobbying
group for older Americans.
Perhaps the most flamboyant support comes from the city of
Springfield, Mass. The mayor, Michael Albano, has garnered national
headlines by having his city buy drugs from Canada for its workers,
retirees, and their dependents. The mayor claims his city could save
up to $9 million a year doing so.
He's also asked the city's pension fund to divest itself of
pharmaceutical- company stocks, saying it would be inconsistent to
claim that drug companies are "gouging" the public and then profit
from them. …